Malia Lazu and the Epicenter Community Inc. draw connections among communities
Inspiring and mentoring entrepreneurs to build creative businesses in an effort to accelerate change
Malia Lazu takes an unusual approach to business development. While tending to the needs of individual entrepreneurs, she also cultivates the broader environment, seeking to create a landscape where marginalized communities can realize their business dreams.
Often found doing her work in high heels — and always in high fashion — the high-energy Hawaiian native describes her vision of grassroots entrepreneurial development in terms more associated with civil rights than Harvard Business School.
It’s a living and breathing experience,” says Lazu at the start of a packed day of meetings, travel, conference calls, reports and receptions. “It’s at the intersection of economic and social justice.”
Over the past four years, Lazu has mentored close to 100 aspiring entrepreneurs through Accelerate Boston, a program run by the Dorchester-based nonprofit Epicenter Community Inc. At the same time, she combines elements of political organizing, social networking and cultural collaborating, drawing connections among communities to fashion a more receptive ecosystem for entrepreneurs, especially in the fields of food, fashion and design.
“Building businesses, especially in the creative economy, is the most radical thing I can do,” says Lazu, who came to Boston from Honolulu to study communications at Emerson College. “But in working in communities of color, with all the barriers people face, we have to do more than teach from a textbook. We have to change the environment in Boston to allow businesses to grow and thrive.”
Accelerate program participants, selected by a committee made up of Lazu and partners from the community development groups Nuestra Comunidad and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), spend every other Saturday over a six-month period learning about business finance, marketing, law, personnel management, branding and pitching their ideas to investors. They are instructed by experts like Constant Contact co-founder Alec Stern and former Morgan Stanley analyst Adrian Wong. Those are the tangibles. The program also builds skills more difficult to quantify, such as confidence, and tears down barriers more damaging than a bad credit report, such as fear.
“One of our women in the class stood up and, in tears, said that she comes from a country where women don’t run businesses, and that was her husband’s attitude,” says Lazu. “Before she was able to overcome business obstacles, she had to, and did, change the mindset within her own family. A big part of our job at Accelerate is to give people the support to take on every challenge, not just the kind you typically learn about in business school.”
Those challenges include institutional and individual discrimination. “What we give are classes not just for people in the creative economy, but for people who have faced a lifetime of enormous bias,” says Lazu. “The discrimination they feel as people of color in this world makes stepping into [their] own business very emotional. We have to deal with that in a very real way. When we do a finance class, we don’t just throw up a P & L; we have to address their scarcity mentality and the trauma of money in a capitalist economy where racism and unconscious bias are alive and well.”
Rica Elysee, who launched the in-home hair and makeup service BeautyLynk last year after going through Accelerate Boston, endorses Lazu’s approach. She says it gave her both the skills and the confidence to overcome her uncertainties.
“It’s not about your idea,” says Elysee. “It’s about what you have in yourself, and your ability to bring that out. Malia’s ability to deliver that message and to share in that belief is why we’re able to go where we need to go.”
Lazu’s encouragement, along with the support of mentors from Accelerate, has led to BeautyLynk expanding operations from Boston into Atlanta, New York and Philadelphia, with a network of 65 stylists serving over 2,000 customers. Described by Lazu as “Uber for hair,” BeautyLynk is looking to expand services to offices — another place to reach clients too busy or homebound to visit a salon.
Exquisite design concepts
Diana Vertus, owner of Exquisite Design Concepts, a boutique event-planning company, has seen her business increase by a third since going through Accelerate. She is currently running a national tour of promotional events for Puma Global, bringing Puma brand “ambassadors” to meet fitness professionals in cities like Boston, New York, Los Angeles and Miami.
“I knew I wanted to be in business, but Accelerate taught me how to run one,” says Vertus. “I never even had a business plan. Malia helped pull that together.”
More than half the Accelerate graduates are women, and 77 percent are people of color. Recently, five Accelerate businesses were featured in Improper Bostonian magazine’s “Best of Boston” rankings. Noting that 96 percent of Accelerator participants are under the age of 40, Lazu has plans to recruit older would-be entrepreneurs whose dreams have been deferred.
After graduating from Emerson, Lazu directed the political group MassVOTE and worked with Harry Belafonte on social and economic justice campaigns before returning to Boston as an MIT fellow. She believes her work in the broader community is as important as her direct contact with business aspirers.
“I’m an organizer who believes deeply in taking on social and economic justice issues,” she says. “Changing the environment can help advance the issues I care about.”
Her political efforts in recent years helped triple the number of African Americans controlling liquor licenses, thus opening up new opportunities in the restaurant and hospitality trades. She played a leadership role in getting the MBTA to experiment with late-night service aimed at expanding public transportation access for customers and workers in the nightlife economy. Thousands of young urbanites have gathered at scores of Epicenter Community-sponsored events, creating connections across lines of race and class.
Transforming the city
Many of these efforts were launched under the banner of Future Boston Alliance, which Lazu joined four years ago as executive director. The Alliance sought to transform the city by forging new connections between neighborhoods and downtown, young professionals and community activists, and creative classes and leaders in higher education, medicine and finance.
Lazu seized the opportunity, sponsoring unique gatherings like the Juneteenth Takeover at the Museum of Fine Arts, launching the Restaurant Discovery Pipeline to diversify culinary hotspot ownership and management, and starting Accelerate Boston.
Future Boston Alliance’s vision of a dynamic and progressive coalition was financed by Greg Selkoe, founder of the urban streetwear company Karmaloop. But last year, Karmaloop went bankrupt, leaving the Alliance adrift. “Losing our patron as quickly as we did, without much notice, put us in an interesting position,” Lazu says. “Fortunately people called and asked to help. People who could write checks wrote them. Foundations stepped up. It gave us an opportunity to refocus.”
Bolstered by support from groups including The Boston Foundation and The Barr Foundation, Lazu rebranded Future Boston Alliance as Epicenter, increasing the emphasis on business development. “It was clear that the Accelerate classes were the most effective engine of change,” she says. “We are physically changing lives and physically changing the community for the better. This is where economic development and social justice come into play.”
Fresh Food Generation, a food truck and catering service specializing in bringing locally grown products to inner-city customers, was launched in 2013 after going through Accelerate Boston. Co-founded by Roxbury native Cassandria Campbell, Fresh Food is an example of a company with an important social impact, says Lazu.
Another is Trillfit, a hip-hop fitness pop-up started by Heather White, who won last year’s Accelerate pitch contest and has been expanding the cultural boundaries of healthy exercise to thousands of urban clients. “I had seen firsthand what Malia was doing to encourage, grow and diversify Boston’s creative community,” says White, “and it was something I knew I wanted to be part of.”
Bringing together “trill” – true and real in hip-hop slang – and “fit” to create live DJ work-out sessions in Boston and Los Angeles has been a self-financed labor thus far. Going beyond bootstrapping to reach the next level, a dedicated retail space in Boston, will require outside financing to create what Lazu calls “the next Soul Cycle.” Accelerate’s training in pitching to investors and drawing up financial plans will be invaluable, says White, in working to open up Trillfit’s own space and hosting pop-ups in other markets.
“I never thought that Trillfit could be a business until I went through the Accelerate program,” she says. “Before it was a hobby – a flash in the pan that was making some noise. Now we have a business plan, a strategic sales plan, a map for the future – and we’re on our way to the races.”
On the web
Beauty Lynk: https://beautylynk.com/
Finding a niche
In Boston’s increasingly diverse and polyglot landscape, Lazu has secured an unusual niche. The daughter of a Puerto Rican naval sailor and an Irish-Italian Jersey girl, she was raised by a single mother and five “aunties” in a working-class Honolulu neighborhood. She has fought and won tough political battles all across the country, done the hard work of door-to-door organizing, changed the mindset of hidebound cultural institutions and marched into executive suites to convince business titans to embrace the Boston they rarely see.
Lazu says all major institutions must learn to identify and root out unconscious bias, make hiring decisions that reflect a real commitment to diversity and being fluid enough to build a more inclusive organization.
“As the old West African story goes,” she says, “a house built for a giraffe could never be comfortable for an elephant, no matter how much the giraffe wants the elephant to be comfortable.”
The obligation to create a New Boston belongs to everyone, says Lazu. She remains committed to helping individual entrepreneurs while making connections to benefit all. “That’s actually the only way you can do it,” she says.